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Victorian Story

Lead Mining Days

Victorian Story

Matt could hear his dad coughing out in the byre. He knew how worried his mother got when she heard that rasping, hacking noise so he knew he’d have to keep quiet about it. Matt’s dad had been a lead miner, man and boy for nigh on 30 years now and a lifetime of breathing in gunpowder and stone dust and walking the long miles home still sodden from the deep mines was taking its toll. As a boy, his dad had been at Beever’s Mine when the Duke’s Level was finally broken through after 10 years of driving it from Hebden Gill. He’d seen the deep shafts going down up on Grassington Out Moor fathoms deep through the thick peat, and all the disappointment when all but Sarah’s Shaft struck a good vein. It had been a long hard life only to end up in disappointment and illness. Matt sighed. At 13 he worked above ground on the dressing floor at High Grinding Mill, deafened by the sound of the crushers smashing up the lead ore and being permanently wet from the hotching jig he helped operate. He’d hoped to join his dad underground this summer, but things were looking bad all over the lead field what with cheap lead coming in from Spain and there being fewer and fewer good strikes up on the moor.

He turned back to the cow he was milking. At least they had her and a bit of land to grow turnips and peas, and thirty ewes grazing the high land above the village. They were lucky. Many other families had no land to see them through hard times and they were already leaving. Some to dig coal in Lancashire, others to cross the sea and find work in mines in America. His cousin’s family had moved to Burnley last year. They lived on a street full of lead miners. Their wives and children worked in the cotton mills now and the men laboured for King Coal. His cousin was still hopeful that they might return to the clear air and relative freedom of the lead miner’s life, but Matt had heard his father say that the good times weren’t coming back and the village would never be the place it once was.

Today Matt was due to go up to the Cupola smelt mill to help barrow lead ore to the furnaces. They were short several men and boys this month due to illness or them having simply upped and left. He liked being in the big dark mill with its two roaring furnaces and the vast flues that marched up the hill behind the mill to the tall chimney on the horizon. He was lucky not to have been sent up the flue to scrape it clean of the lead that settled on the stone sides as the fume smoked its way up to the chimney. That was a dirty, nasty job and you’d always bang your head on the roof within the first five minutes and be wiping blood out of your eyes for the rest of the day.

Bracken the cow mooed gently, as if to hurry him along. He finished up, covered the brimming bucket with a freshly scalded cloth and carefully carried it back into the kitchen for his mother. She was making butter today and he loved the salty sour smell and the slap slap of the pats as she expertly shaped the butter and then wrapped it up ready to go to market. The new spring grass made the butter sweet and creamy and his mother had regular customers who asked for her butter specially knowing it to be clean and pure.

She looked up and smiled as he came in. He knew she’d want the milk poured straight into the big wooden butter churn so he did without being asked. His mother had been hard at work since cock crow well before the sun was up and she was too tired for words. She smiled again and then got on with clashing a new batch of butter in her big wooden bowl to get the buttermilk out. Matt struggled out with a full bucket of the buttermilk from the last batch of butter. Mrs Coggins next door had a pig and in return for a plentiful supply of buttermilk, they’d get a good side of bacon to salt come the autumn. Matt left the bucket by Mrs Coggins’ back door then nipped back for his bait and tin of cold tea and set off up the gill for the smelt mill. It was a good two miles’ tramp and his dad was already well up ahead of him.

Matt stopped by Nanny’s Spout to wash his face in the cold clear spring water. It was strange how this particular spring never dried up and never froze, always running just the same whatever the weather. He knelt down beside it and plunged his hands under the fall of water, then splashed it over his head and neck. He’d have been grateful for a bucket of the stuff once he got up to the smelt mill. In the summer, it could become quite unbearably hot, and even today in the cool spring weather it would be thirsty work. He sipped a couple of handfuls of the pure water, then stood up. Shaking the water out of his hair, he stuck his cap back on his head and set off once again with a slightly lighter step. He didn’t know why, but he always felt a little better after a stop at the spring. The sharp coldness woke him up and suddenly he started to notice the birds around him singing their spring songs and even a few primroses peeping out from among the rocks.

Up ahead he spotted his dad. He was walking slowly with his pick and shovel resting heavy on his shoulders. Matt called out and he turned and waited for him to catch up. Matt’s happy mood evaporated as he heard his dad’s breath coming out in short, sharp gasps. His dad saw his worried face and laughed and clapped him on the shoulder, “Eee lad, don’t you go worrying yourself about me. I’ve got a few more years in me yet and this good spring weather will help me along you’ll see!”. Matt laughed back and they trudged on up the gill with his dad telling him some of the old stories of lucky strikes and the Silver Spirit who watched over miners in trouble and the workings of “t’Owd Man”, miners long dead whose workings they sometimes stumbled on while driving new levels.

That evening, Matt returned early because they’d closed down one of the furnaces to clean it out and he hadn’t been wanted. It was less money for the family, but he was still young enough to appreciate a few hours of freedom. He clattered along the stony track back down the gill, his clogs striking the occasional spark off the gritstone. He’d nearly reached the wicket gate into their vegetable patch when he heard faint shouting behind him. He turned and saw Clem, one of his dad’s mining partners flying down the track towards him. “There’s been a rock fall lad, the damn stopes’ come down on your dad and he’s trapped. Get your ma and bring her up as quick as you can.”

Matt’s knees nearly gave way, but he did as he was told and saw that awful look of fear cross his mother’s face as it had so many others miners’ wives in that little community over the years. She grabbed her woollen shawl and rushed away, calling for Matt to get Mrs Coggins round to watch the bairns. He did so then followed on after her, not that there was much either of them could do other than pray. There’d be more than enough strong men down the shaft hauling the rock out as fast as they could go. He reached Nanny’s Spout, and for some reason that he could never afterwards explain, he crossed over the beck and knelt by the gurgling spring for a few seconds and said a prayer for his dad. Then, quick as a flash he was up and off after his ma.

Up at the shaft head they watched the ropes winding round the drum and drawing up the kibbles full of rock. It seemed painfully slow. Every now and then a couple of exhausted miners would been hauled up too and their places taken from the anxious crowd gathered nearby. Grassington Moor was a big mine field, but word of an accident spread fast and everyone ran to help. Rumour had it that even the Duke’s Mineral Agent was down the shaft directing the men as they tried to prop up the collapsed stope.

Painful minutes passed and Matt and his mother huddled close together as they began to prepare for the worst. Mrs Coggins’ husband who’d come all the way from the Duke’s Derbyshire mines to find better fortune as a young lad had gone the same way, crushed to death under the unforgiving limestone two year’s back. Matt’s mother began to sob quietly. There’d be hard times for their family with the main breadwinner gone. Like as not they’d have to follow their friends and relatives to the coal pits and cotton mills and give up the beautiful hills and dales they’d been born to.

Then suddenly, from a very long way away, they heard a faint shout. They all crowded as close as they could to the shaft head, straining their ears above the sound of the creaking straining overhead winding ropes that endless hauled and pumped the deep mines. More minutes passed then all of a sudden dirty but happy faces appeared. They’d got to him and he was fine, protected by a great piece of timber that had somehow kept the rockfall away from him. He was on his way up, wet and hungry, and filthy as a mudlark, but not a scratch on him.

Matt for a brief moment thought he heard the sound of laughing bubbling water and realised that his prayer had been answered. He hugged his happy mother then ran to help the men as they carried his father out. He was struggling to be put down. “I’m fine I tell thee, put me down, I’m not some weak bairn to be carried!” Laughing, his friends dumped him down in front of his wife. She put a stern look on her face as if she was going to scold him for causing such trouble, but before she could open her mouth he interrupted. “Now then all you jolly fellows. I’ve some news you’ll find to your liking and its good reward for all your trouble. That stope was hiding the biggest vein of lead I’ve ever seen. There was nobbut two inches of deads in front of it but it would have stayed hidden for all eternity if that stoping timber hadn’t given way and knocked it clear!” The men cheered with delight. A good strike meant bread on the table for a few more months or maybe enough for a ticket to America. “So lad,” He turned to Matt, “do you fancy joining me in the mine tomorrow and earning a real man’s wage?” Matt nodded. He shook his dad’s outstretched hand. There was still a living to be made in these hills and Matt was glad of the chance.

The Mineral Wealth of the Moors

A collection of articles, typical of those which might have appeared in local newspapers of the time (the Craven Herald for example).

April 1840

BETTER PROSPECTS FOR DUKE’S MINES

It is with great pleasure that we can announce to our readers that, following on from the completion of that masterpiece of engineering, the Duke’s Level, and the consequent opening of even deeper mines in the Grassington Moor mining field, several important strikes of the mineral ore have been made. The Duke’s Mineral Agent, a Mr John Taylor reports that work has recently been found for twelve more men and boys from the local villages. He has also furnished us with figures indicating a considerable increase in the tonnage of smelted lead being produced at Cupola Smelt Mill. We can only rejoice at this good news and hope that with the imminent completion of the Skipton and Cracoe Turnpike Road, prospects for the exploitation of these rich mineral resources will be realised. This will be to the betterment of all concerned, not least the miners of Hebden who have of late, for want of decent employment of their time, become unruly and troublesome. Alcohol is more than likely to be at the root of this evil, but idle hands make work for the Devil and full employment of these men is devoutly to be wished for.

HEBDEN AFFRAY

Two local men, John Metcalfe and Matty Wilson appeared before the court in Skipton, Tuesday morning last. They were charged with brawling in the street one month previously. Witnesses said that the pair, currently employed in the Duke’s mines on Grassington Moor, were arguing over a bag of mining tools that had recently been abandoned by a colleague, lately emigrated to seek his fortune in Australia. Each claimed that the tools had been gifted to them. Much befuddled with alcohol, they had proceeded to fight in the Main Road where they had been narrowly missed by Mr Glover and his cart going to the market in Skipton. The men were fined 2s each and bound over to keep the peace for 30 days.

June 1854

FORMATION OF NEW MINING COMPANY

It has been recently announced that following bitter dispute in the Chancery Court between certain investors and the interests of the Duke of Devonshire, a new mining company has been formed entitled the Hebden Moor Mining Company. Work is intended to proceed on driving the first levels with all speed. It is anticipated that Hebden Gill, the site of the company’s operations will yield rich veins of the mineral ore of lead. Men are already at work constructing a new dressing floor for the processing of the raw material. By legal agreement, ore from the company’s mines will be smelted at the Duke’s Cupola Smelt Mill. There is to be much rejoicing in the village and several families who had recently moved to Lancashire have begun to make plans to return.

May 1863

REPORT ON MINERS’ HEALTH

Her Majesty’s government have recently sent inspectors from the Kinnaird Commission to investigate the health and working conditions of the men and boys employed in the Grassington and Pateley Bridge lead mines. It is reported that the life expectancy of these men is forty-six years, compared to the fifty-six years estimated for those men occupied in other livelihoods. The damp conditions must contribute greatly to this melancholy fact. It is reported that the men work 8 hour shifts in wet conditions, often virtually unclothed, then walk the several miles home to their villages. It is commonly known that old miners are characterised by their bad lungs and shortness of breath. In spite of these hardships, the miners are renowned for their resolutely optimistic outlook on life.

FATAL ACCIDENT

On Friday last a shocking accident befell a young boy employed in the Duke’s Cupola Smelt Mill. He was one of three boys sent to scour the walls of the great flue that runs from the mill over the moor to the chimney near Coalgrovebeck Mine. The boy had gone on ahead of his companions and had apparently stumbled and fallen part way up the flue, rendering himself senseless. The other boys failed to realise that he had not returned and the flue was then washed clean as is the usual practice by allowing a great rush of water to flow down it from the reservoir above. It was with great sadness that the now drowned body of the young boy was found in the settling pond at the lower end of the flue. The boy’s mother is reported as being inconsolable having already lost her husband and his brother in a previous mining accident.

LEEDS ASSIZES

The tenant of Bolton Gill in the township of Hebden, one Mr Francis Hammond has commenced legal proceeding against Hebden Moor Mining Company. He claims that the Company have severely abused their privileges. We publish this quotation directly from the court record : “The litigant claims that he has not only been deprived of all benefit of the said close but diverse cows, sheep and goats have fallen into the shafts, pits, holes, ditches, channels and watercourses and been drowned, killed, maimed, lamed and injured.”

MINING ACCIDENT

On 6th July last, a frightful accident occurred in Sarah’s Shaft, one of the Duke’s Grassington Moor mines. The works in the mine proceed up or down the curtain-like lead veins, with waste, or ‘deads’ as it is quaintly known, piled above the miner’s heads or at their feet supported on wooden structures known as ‘stopes’. An overhead stope apparently gave way while miners were working nearby and a desperate rescue effort was then mounted, led by the Duke’s mineral agent Mr James Ray Eddy himself. It appears that four men were trapped, one the older brother of the boy recently drowned in the Smelt Mill Flue. The Editor of this newspaper was conducted to the sad scene at the shaft head by a local boy from Hebden. Part way there we observed a charming custom, perhaps a relict of times long gone. The boy paused by a spring in the hillside, known locally as Nanny’s Spout. Here he offered up a simple, country prayer to the Almighty, disposer of events, for the safe recovery of the poor unfortunates even then trapped underground. We heartily concurred and then hastened on up the Gill. It was with great relief that we discovered upon arrival, that the men had been found unharmed and were indeed rejoicing at the discovery of a good new vein of ore hitherto hidden by the stoping.